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Landmarks Wants Little BK Heights Building To Stay Little

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On the corner of Clinton Street and Aiken Place in historic Brooklyn Heights sits a one-story building that's quite different from its neighbors, but the community has no desire to see it change. Constructed in 1937, the commercial building was designed in the Art Moderne style, with a very square, windowless facade and a carved cornice, and unlike the community, the owner, Joseph P. Day Realty Corp., very much wants to change the quirky little structure. A proposal to make it a six-story condo building came before the Landmarks Preservation Commission on Tuesday and to say that the commissioners and community weren't wild about it would be quite an understatement.

The developer wants to demolish the entire building at 144 Clinton Street and reconstruct it as a six-story residential building with the sixth floor being a setback penthouse. The total height would be 74 feet, 10 inches, and it would hold four apartments. Three of them would be full-floor units, and there would also be a duplex. The design team said they didn't want to demolish the building and tried not to sell it as a demolition, even though that is essentially what would happen. The new building would have a glass storefront and large windows wrapping the corner of the building on each level. But the existing Art Deco elements on Clinton Street would be salvaged.

Right off the bat, new LPC chair Meenakshi Srinivasan pointed out that the local Community Board 2 rejected the proposal. LPC commissioner Frederick Bland, who lives in the district, pointed out that the zoning law allows a building of the proposed height, but the landmarks law allows the commission to decide what is appropriate for a historic district. He said the current structure is a "building that contributes" to the character of the district and the proposal is "completely misguided."

Commissioner Margery Perlmutter asked why it was so necessary to add height to the existing building and didn't see any logic behind the design. She added that the salvaging of some façade elements was not "real preservation." Michael Goldblum said there may be some precedent for the project, but was extremely hesitant in his saying that—he really wants the height reduced. Roberta Washington wanted more of the existing building preserved. Srinivasan asked the design team to seek out other tall Art Deco buildings for inspiration.

Members of the community felt the same way as the LPC. Judy Stanton, executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association, said they had "significant concerns" and that the proposal would essentially remove the building and have an "irrevocable impact on a key block" in the neighborhood. She said the salvage of some existing elements was an "unsuccessful gesture."

St. Charles Borromeo Church, with its stained glass windows, sits adjacent to the building, and many were concerned about the effect the new building's height would have on the landmarked structure. While the design team said there would be a "minimal effect," the community wasn't so sure. Father Edward Doran spoke quite passionately in opposition to the project as did one of his parishioners who said she had "spent hours" staring at the stained glass.

Otis Pratt Pearsall, who was one of those who originally lobbied for the creation of the Brooklyn Heights Historic District (the city's first historic district), said this proposal has the "potential to unravel the district's integrity." He feared that it would lead to a haphazard "piecemeal development" of the neighborhood.

The Historic Districts Council commended the design team's effort, but could not support the project. "The attempted glass corner windows reach too far into the facades of the building, reading more as a curtain wall than a referential Art Deco element. HDC laments the loss of the building's ground floor, and finds the proposed amount of glazing along Aitken Place, as well as the floor-to-floor window openings dotting the building to be excessive and not contextual to the block or the Brooklyn Heights Historic District."

In the end, the hearing was closed with no action. The design team is welcome to return, but its members will have to really up their game for the building to win an OK the next time around.
—Evan Bindelglass is a local freelance journalist, photographer, cinephile, and foodie. You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter @evabin, or check out his personal blog.
· All Landmarks Preservation Commission coverage [Curbed]